Evolutionary physics: could Darwin have predicted the Airbus?

Researchers found that aircraft have evolved along a consistent path when key features are assessed

The development of commercial aircraft since the early 20th century has followed an evolutionary path very similar to Darwinian evolution in biology, even though it is driven by human design and engineering skills rather than natural selection. That conclusion comes from an analysis in the Journal of Applied Physics, led by Adrian Bejan, an engineering professor at Duke University in the US.

The researchers found that aircraft from the Farman Goliath in 1919 to the latest Boeing 787 and Airbus A380 have evolved along a consistent path, when key features such as wing span, fuselage length, fuel load and body size are assessed. New technologies such as jet engines and materials such as carbon fibres have contributed to increasing efficiency but have not caused fundamental discontinuity.

“Evolution is a universal phenomenon encompassing technology, river basins and animal design alike,” comments Bejan, “and it is rooted in physics.”

The only outlier in the evolutionary history of passenger airliners was Concorde, a commercial failure. “The Concorde was too far off from the ratios that evolution has produced in passenger jets,” says Bejan. Its limited capacity, long fuselage, short wingspan, huge engines and poor fuel capacity ensured that it would be an evolutionary dead end. Looking to the future of aviation, the study suggests improvements in fuel efficiency but no radical design changes.

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